Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Things That Matter by Edward Mendelson

This book illustrates perfectly, the virtues of independently owned bookstores! I bought this last November at one of my favorite indie bookstores – The Blue Bicycle in Charleston, SC. On our annual visit to this wonderful city, we always make plans to spend a couple of hours there. Jonathan and Lauren Sanchez are everything book lovers want in a book store. Their knowledge of their stacks is encyclopedic, and when they recommend a book, I know I can rely on them. The next time you are in Charleston, make this a must stop on your tour. They are on King Street a couple blocks down from the Francis Marion Hotel. Every time I pass a large chain store, I ask if they have this title – so far those stores are 0-6. How else could I have come across this book so easily? Now, back to the stacks!

Two things struck me when I picked up the book – the dust jacket has a photo of six of my favorite novels, and a seventh I had never read. Then there was the subtitle: “What Seven Classic Novels Have to Say About the Stages of Life.” How could I NOT buy this book?

Well, I was only a tiny bit disappointed. The chapters took me back to my grad school days, when this sort of reading was 90% of my book fare. Here are the seven novels and the topic Mendelson discusses in each chapter: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (birth); Wuthering Heights by Emily Brontë (childhood); Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë (growth); Middlemarch by George Eliot (marriage); Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (love); To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf (parenthood); and Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf (the future). Does anyone need any more convincing?

Okay, just a few more words. Completely unfamiliar with Between the Acts, I was at sea in the last chapter, which reminds me to warn anyone interested in this book, that the author assumes at least a passing familiarity with these novels. Of course, no serious reader would not have read most of these books. I plan on hunting down a copy of Between the Acts, and then re-reading that final chapter.

As far as Wuthering Heights is concerned, I have loved this story for a very long time, yet Mendelson has given me an entirely new perspective on this monument of 19th century literature. I won’t spoil by revealing any of Mendelson’s ideas, but if you love these novels as much as I do, this book is a must read.

Most of the Chapter/Essays were incisive and clear, except for To the Lighthouse, but then again, the novel can also be confusing to first time readers. I have only read Lighthouse once, and perhaps a better grasp of the story might have solved this problem. 4-1/2 stars.

--Chiron, 1/30/10

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